When black women lead

A century before Alicia Garza came Anna Arnold Hedgeman, Violet Johnson, and Florence Spearing Randolph.

These two books expand our understanding of black women’s activism and their attendant democratic visions. Both make important contributions to black freedom studies, a growing subfield of American history.

Anna Arnold Hedgeman (1899–1990) was a teacher, political operative, and organizer best known as the only woman on the planning team for the 1963 March on Washington. She had engaged in decades of movement work before the march: she led black YWCA chapters in Ohio, New Jersey, and New York in the 1920s; teamed up with A. Philip Ran­dolph and his budding March on Washington movement in the 1930s; and worked in politics—in the New York City mayor’s office, and in the federal government lobbying on behalf of the Fair Employment Practices Committee in the 1940s. Indeed, Hedgeman’s life provides a view of the decades of organizing that preceded what Bayard Rustin would later call the “classical” phase of the civil rights movement, from 1955 to 1965. When Martin Luther King Jr. was still a child, Hedgeman was among a cadre of black women and men who developed the networks and strategies that provided the groundwork for King’s movement.

Jennifer Scanlon illumines Hedge­man’s feminist contributions (she was among the founders of the National Organization for Women), showing that for Hedgeman and her colleagues, issues of race and sex were never separate. To be a black woman means being black in a different way than for a black man, and to be a black woman means being a woman in a different way than for a white woman. For all people, Scanlon shows, race is sexualized and sex is racialized.